France Football's Philippe Auclair is bringing us a three-part special report into Qatar's controversial hosting of the 2022 World Cup. In the final part, he focuses on concerns over the conditions imposed on the migrant workers who will help build the stadia and infrastructure required for the FIFA tournament.
This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the debate around Qatar 2022. Whilst the circumstances surrounding FIFA’s choice to award the World Cup to the emirate have been the subject of countless reports, and whilst the switch to winter has rightly become, pardon the expression, the hottest topic in world football politics and will remain so for the foreseeable future, very little attention has been granted to another dimension of this issue: the human rights situation in the fabulously wealthy micro-state.
You’d have thought the world would have paid a little bit more attention to this when, in April of this year, the largest trade union confederation on the planet, ITUC, representing 175 million workers in 155 countries, formally asked FIFA to re-run the December 2, 2010 vote – asking, in fact, for Qatar to be stripped of the privilege of hosting the tournament if it didn’t engage in a process of complete reform of its labour laws, and made sure those were fully enacted on the ground.
The trade union confederation expressed its demands in the strongest possible terms. The situation of migrant workers in Qatar, who represent well over 90% of its workforce, was akin to "modern-day slavery" – their choice of words.
And it is those workers - mostly shipped in from the Indian sub-continent and Asia, whose number is set to increase by at least a million in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup - who have already started to build the colossal infrastructure needed to stage the tournament. Every day, according to a spokesman of the New York-based charity Human Rights Watch (HRW), four Qatar Airways jumbo jets are chartered to transport Nepalese workers from Kathmandu to Doha. Every day.
Attending UEFA’s congress in London on May 24 of this year, ITUC’s general secretary Sharan Burrow repeated what has become the rallying slogan of that movement: "More workers will die building World Cup infrastructure than players will take to the football pitch unless steps are taken to reform working conditions in Qatar."
One week later, according to the organisation, eight of its activists were arrested and charged by Mauritian police when they staged a demonstration outside the building where FIFA was holding its own Congress.
Why ITUC’s call and actions have yet to stir interest in public opinion may be partly explained by the caution exercised by the media; it is not unknown for political, para-political bodies and pressure groups to stage publicity coups at the expense of truth. And there are, indeed, other organisations which do not approve of the confederation’s radical stance; this does not mean that they do not share its concerns, or that these concerns are unfounded.
Qatar can boast of the highest GDP per capita in the world - $106,000 (£68,000) in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. But this figure doesn’t reflect the huge disparity between the incomes of Qatari nationals and the non-national transients who make the overwhelming majority of the population, and whose lot is a sorry one.
The recruitment process itself is highly suspect, relying on a system of sponsorship via placement agencies which is widely abused; passports may be confiscated on arrival; and, once in situ, those immigrants are routinely denied basic rights granted to workers in most parts of the world. They are de facto non-citizens. Football has, so far, chosen to ignore this.
According to all independent reports, those migrant workers toil six days a week (no summer break for them), 10 hours a day, for less than $10 (£6.40) a shift. They are crammed in rudimentary camps mostly devoid of decent sanitation and – not a luxury in Qatar – air conditioning.
Though official statistics are not available, credible evidence has emerged to suggest a staggering death rate among the young, fit men who come to work there; Nepalese sources mention 100 plus victims per year. Those young men go to bed and never wake up; their hearts, weakened by overwork, heat exposure and dehydration, simply give up with no warning. They call it 'sleeping death'.
This is not to say that the Qataris themselves deny the existence of serious problems. In fact, just as the Russians claim that organising the 2018 World Cup will enable them to right a number of wrongs in their country (addressing football-related hooliganism and racism, for example), the Qatari 2022 Supreme Committee has been at pains to stress that hosting the competition would represent a unique opportunity for progress and the betterment of working conditions for migrants in the emirate.
For its part, FIFA says: "[The] World Cup in the Middle East offers a great opportunity for the region to discover football's power as a platform for positive social change. FIFA upholds the respect for human rights and the application of international norms of behavior as a principle and part of all our activities. FIFA expects the dialogue that started with both the Qatari authorities and organisations like HRW to continue in the build-up of the 2022 FIFA World Cup."
A charter of workers’ rights has been drafted and passed on to FIFA, HRW, ITUC and other bodies which, taken literally, represents a huge step forward. How the noble principles which are enshrined in this document will be put into practice is another matter altogether. And the reason why ITUC and others have become so vocal is because there is still no sign of implementation – two years and nine months after FIFA chose Qatar.
That is not to doubt the sincerity of the people who wrote and promoted this charter, including the Supreme Commitee’s most prominent figure, Hassan al Thawadi. But a common mistake is to think that Qatar, because of its minuscule size and the nature of its regime, often described as an 'enlightened dictatorship', is a homogeneous block. In Qatar as elsewhere, some are pushing for reform, others resisting it.
A country in which economic ultra-liberalism coexists with religious conservatism is bound to be rife with contradictions. Nor should Qatar be singled out for criticism in that regard: from a Western point of view, it’s hard to think of a paragon of democracy and tolerance in that part of the world. By bidding for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has at least showed some willingness to measure its own values against those of others, and risked antagonising many of its neighbours in the process.
It is too early to gauge whether the recent abdication of emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in favour of his 33-year-old son Sheikh Tamim will swing the balance one way or the other. A recognition by FIFA, usually not the slowest to claim the moral high ground, that it has every right to apply pressure on the country it selected to host its grand jamboree, and that it could indeed be a force for good, could be a game-changer.
But we shouldn’t hold our breath. So far, nothing but bland statements of principle have emanated from Zurich. Those planes still land in Doha. Those camps are still heaving with men hungry for work, any work.
And what of FIFPro, the professional players’ union? Couldn’t it find the energy to think of the fate of fellow workers? Couldn’t they ask themselves that simple question: what is a World Cup worth when it is measured in human suffering?
Philippe Auclair, biographer of Eric Cantona (The Rebel Who Would Be King, winner of the Football Book Of The Year Award in 2010) and Thierry Henry, England and international affairs correspondent for France Football magazine and RMC radio station, contributor to The Blizzard.
On Twitter: @PhilippeAuclair